It was about a year ago that I came across a Russian movie called Kosmichesky Reis (Cosmic Voyage) on YouTube. Somebody had posted the whole thing, reportedly with the blessings of Mosfilm. I had read about this 1936 space travel movie, but had never expected to see it. Good thing I did when I had the chance, because when I checked the link again last week, it had been taken down for copyright infringement. If I hadn’t seen it last year, I wouldn’t have been able to give an accurate or insightful account of it in a chapter of Foundations of Science Fiction, which follows the link below to a video with just a few excerpts:
“I remember well how the thought struck me of making calculations for rockets,” wrote Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose theoretical work on multistage liquid-fuel rockets laid the foundation for space travel. “I think the first seeds were sown by the imaginative tales of Jules Verne, which assailed my mind. I was assailed by a sense of longing, and this set me to thinking in a specific way.”
Tsiolkovsky was not the only pioneer of astronautics to credit Verne as his inspiration; Hermann Oberth was one of the others. Long before Neil Armstrong finally set foot on the moon in 1969, it had been conquered countless times in imagination – and the influence of Verne can be seen in an entire school of astronautical science fiction which helped prepare the way for that “giant leap for mankind.”
Verne himself brought the Baltimore Gun Club astronauts back home in Around the Moon (1869) with a splashdown, appropriately, in the same part of the Pacific used for Apollo missions a century later. Yet only in Hector Servadec (1877), also known as Off on a Comet, did he return to the subject of interplanetary travel – and that was one of his worst books. Servadec is fighting a duel in Algeria when a passing comet sweeps up the part of the Earth he and his companions are standing on, without harming them in the least. A Cook’s tour of the solar system follow, from near the Sun to the frigid regions of Saturn and back – after which the travelers are returned unharmed to Earth in a manner as violent as their departure,
Other dreamers, however, soon took up where Verne left off. Numerous interplanetary adventures appeared in the decades before and after World War I, in France and elsewhere. Most are long forgotten, but a number are described in Nikolai A. Rynin’s Interplanetary Flight and Communication (1927-32), a Russian encyclopedia of astronautics, or in other sources like Pierre Versins’ Encyclopédie de l’utopie, des voyages extraordinaires et de la science-fiction (1972) and Jean-Marc Officier and Randy Lofficier’s French Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Pulp Fiction (2000).
Among these now obscure works are Boris Krasnogorsky’s On the Waves of the Ether (1913), which involves a trip to Venus in a ship using light pressure ship lofted into the upper atmosphere of Earth by balloons in order to catch solar radiation. Rynin devotes considerable attention to the technical details of this novel, which like most of those he surveys has since been forgotten.
One that hasn’t been forgotten, and has recently been translated by British sf writer and historian Brian Stableford, is The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist Across the Solar System. A collaboration between adventure writer Georges LeFaure (1858-1953) and physicist Henri de Graffigny (1863-1942), it ran to some 1,800 pages over four volumes: The Moon (1889), The Sun and the Minor Planets (1889), The Major Planets and the Comets (1891), and The Stellar Desert (1896). For translation, the first two and last two volumes are combined.
Mikhail Ossipoff, the Russian scientist, jealously guards two great treasures: his daughter Selena and a super-explosive he has invented – selenite, powerful enough to blow up the world or to send men to the moon. When his arch-rival Fedor Sharp has him exiled to Siberia on trumped-up charges of anarchism in order to steal his invention, Selena’s suitor Gontran de Flammermont comes to the rescue, with a steam-powered airplane invented by Alcide Fricoulet, a French engineer.
By that time, Sharp is already off to the moon, having fraudulently obtained American backing for a space gun. But Ossipoff is soon in literally hot pursuit, with a spacecraft launched from an active volcano to carry himself, his daughter and her fiancé, Fricoulet and Jonathan Farenheit, a former confederate of Sharp’s. They land on the far side, where there is enough air and water to support native life (De Graffigny exploits the idea, dubious even then, that the Moon is egg-shaped, with the narrow end facing Earth.).
There they are discovered by the Selenites, 12-foot tall beings with huge heads and frail bodies. Through their technological assistance, the Earthmen soon master the local language, and the Selenites are eager to help them journey by rocket-propelled aircraft to the near side in search of fuel to continue their interplanetary journey. What they also find is Sharp’s spacecraft, in which Sharp himself has barely clung to life by killing and feeding on another confederate.
Hardly have they revived Sharp than he kidnaps Selena and heads for the inner planets. Thus begins a long pursuit carrying the rivals to Venus and Mercury, where the heroes get shut of Sharp. But Ossipoff is eager to push on to Mars, and even the outer planets. A Cook’s Tour of the solar system employs every means then imaginable – light-pressure craft, a passing comet, even an interplanetary ramjet fueled by comet dust. Plot complications – other than the hazards encountered in space – center on Farenheit’s homesickness and the Flammermont’s impatience over the years-long delay of his marriage.
LeFaure and Graffigny were perhaps the first to think of a now obvious necessity for space travel: space suits. They also anticipated something akin to lasers for interplanetary communication: light beams picked up and modulated by selenium photocells. But, beyond technology, their imaginations often fail them: the Venusians they encounter speak Greek, and the bird-like Martians fight wars on a regular schedule – a borrowing from the satirical travel tale, but justified here as a population control measure.
In keeping with astronomer Camille Flammarion’s mystical theory of the plurality of worlds, even Mercury and the moons of Mars harbor life, but none of the life forms are terribly interesting. It actually comes as a relief when Jupiter turns out to be a hellish world of violent storms and volcanic eruptions. But by this time, most of the narrative is a huge information dump – including a collective hallucination in which the ramjet Éclair explores the Galaxy at many times the speed of light. Occasionally, there are passages that evoke a sense of wonder:
The profound blackness of space was packed with multicolored stars. Here were entirely white globes that radiated milky tints of extraordinary delicacy into space; there were mysterious worlds brightening the depths of space with a glow that passed through all the shades of red, from scarlet to the finest orange-yellow; a little further on there was an assemblage of stars of different hues, resembling the colors of an extraordinary palette. Some of these worlds seemed blurred by a luminous mist, like Venetian lanterns whose flames flicker as the festivals they illuminate come to an end, ready to go out.
But nearly all the narrative is a dull catalogue of dull facts. Another chronic problem with the whole series is that the story chronology, and even the “scientific” explanations, are incredibly sloppy. Perhaps the finest moment is the unexpectedly ironic conclusion, when the heroes finally reach home back on Earth after their ship crashes, but find their dreams of glory dashed in a last ploy by Sharp.
Garrett P. Serviss (1851-1929), a leading Vernean sf writer in the United States, shows similar limitations in A Columbus of Space (1909). His hero harnesses atomic energy and, with hardly any preliminaries, builds a spaceship and invites his friends aboard for its maiden flight. After a journey fraught with such perils as meteors, they reach Venus. But, once Serviss gets them there, he doesn’t know what to do with them. There is a brief encounter with Stone Age telepaths, then a longer one in a Ruritanian kingdom, complete with a princess. Only in a religious mythology based on the rare appearances of the sun, through breaks in the cloud cover, is there any real cultural invention.
More imaginative is Andre Mas’ “The Germans on Venus” (1913), published as a booklet in France on the eve of World War I. From secondary sources, it might seem to be an exercise in jingoism – especially since in an epilogue the Great Powers divide the planets among them, just as they had recently divided Africa. But in fact the story is a Vernean adventure, with a bit of H.G. Wells. The German ship Sirius is launched by a flywheel catapult, but powered by rockets thereafter. Two of the crewmen are German, but one is French, and Mas’ Venus is far more believable than previous versions of our sister planet, with its freakish climate and pseudo-saurian life forms. Mas’ heroes have to fight to survive, and they can’t return to Earth – so they can send radio messages that attract a wave of colony ships, an expression of humanity’s manifest destiny to spread beyond its homeworld.
But it was Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) who first used science fiction to fully explore concepts that have since become reality in the conquest of space. “Earth is the cradle of mankind,” he is said to have remarked. “But you cannot live in a cradle forever.” Beyond the Planet Earth (1918) is a testament to his belief in not just the conquest, but also the actual colonization of space.
An international colony of reclusive scientists in the Himalayas, looking tor new worlds to conquer, is startled when one of their number. Ivanov, announces he has solved the problem of space travel. The others are skeptical: “The Russian’s probably thought up a gigantic gun,” huffs Franklin, in an obvious allusion to Verne. But the solution, of course, is actually the liquid-fuel rocket. Beyond the Planet Earth goes on to offer equally ingenious solutions to other problems of space flight: Tanks of water cushion the astronauts against acceleration, greenhouses replenish air and (using human wastes as fertilizer) food, and rocket pistols are used for space walks.
Tsiolkovsky pays attention to such mundane details as how to take a bath in a weightless environment, and he provides his crewmen with food in squeeze tubes. The antics of his heroes foreshadow those of actual Skylab and Salyut crews:
One after another our travellers flew into the large cabin, some sideways, some upside down; it seemed to each man that he was the right way up, while the others were not... it [was] difficult to prevent themselves from moving about. It was an odd state to be in, and provoked endless witticisms, jokes and laughter.
Although there is a visit to the moon in a rocket-powered rover, even a flyby of Mars, the real stress is on creating new habitats for mankind in space itself, as Gerard O’Neill later proposed – even to the use of lunar material for construction. By the end of the novel, thousands of ships are being launched to found space colonies, which are envisioned as the scene of Utopian social experiments.
True, as Newton remarks, space lacks the familiar mountains, oceans, and storms that have inspired earthly poets. “But is there really no poetry here?” he asks. “Surely we still have science, matter, worlds – and mankind, which will come and surround us and occupy this boundless expanse! Is not Man himself the highest poetry of all?’”
When Hermann Oberth independently developed modern rocketry theory in Germany, Otto Willi Gail (1896-1956) was quick to push the cause of space exploration with The Shot into Infinity (1925).
August Korf, a German scientist who has dedicated his life to the conquest of space, is too proud to appeal to the world for funds. Less scrupulous is his Russian rival Suchinoff, who uses stolen plans for a solid-fuel rocket to launch his own mission to the moon (The same year Gail’s novel appeared, Karl August Laffert’s Beacon in the Sky had its World Peace League using solid-fuel rockets.).
Korf himself had abandoned the solid-fuel design as insufficient, and he is proven right when Suchinov’s astronaut is stranded in lunar orbit – doomed to slow death. Putting aside all else, Korf works against time to complete his multistage liquid-hydrogen rocket, which is launched from a ramp, to attempt a rescue. Only after a rendezvous with the Suchinoff craft does he learn that the dying pilot is Natalka – Suchinoff’s daughter, and his own former lover.
As dedicated to the cause of space flight as Korf himself, she had become impatient with his caution and had stolen the solid-fuel design for her father in order to carry out the “great liberating deed” herself. “It was a crime against mankind that national honor and trifling pride as a citizen meant more to you than this noble work,” she tells him. After more than eighty years the novel, for all its Wagnerianism, remains prophetically realistic. Illustrations of stage separation and a space walk for the cover of the 1929 English translation in Science Wonder Quarterly look almost like NASA publicity stills.
Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929), which enlisted Oberth as its technical advisor, owes as much to Gail as to the Thea von Harbou script. The early scenes, in which excited crowds watch as a two-stage rocket is moved on tracks from a huge assembly building to the launch site, the countdown and the launch itself seem like a preview of those at Cape Canaveral forty years later – there’s even a Walter Cronkite-type excitedly broadcasting the news to the world.
But the film was not a success – in those days, the conquest of space was the obsession of a few, the kind of men who founded the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt and the American Rocket Society and the British Interplanetary Society, working in scorn or, at best, in obscurity.
Dedication meant something in those days. When Soviet enthusiasts founded GIRD (Grupa po Izuceniyu Reaktivno Dvizheniya, or Group for the Study of Reactive Motion), cynics dubbed the enterprise Grupa Inzhenerov, Rabotayushchikh Darom – Group of Engineers, Working for Nothing. But those engineers found a champion in Aleksandr Belyayev (1884-1942), who evidently sought to outdo Gail with A Leap into Nothingness (1933).
More than Gail, Belyayev understood the logistics of organizing a space program; an entire industrial center and launch complex has to be built in the Andes. And A Leap into Nothingness was the first sf novel to deal seriously with space medicine and astronaut training. Belyayev’s future spacemen work out in centrifuges and use a free-fall elevator to simulate weightlessness – an idea Robert A. Heinlein reinvented in Space Cadet (1948).
Of course, by 1933, Belyayev had to make his novel politically acceptable: instead of pure Vernean adventure, there is propaganda. The New Ark is financed by frightened billionaires seeking to escape from world Communist revolution. Having arrived on a Carboniferous Age Venus, the refugees revert to savagery for lack of anyone to exploit, and Leo Tsander (named for GIRD pioneer Fridrikh Tsander) and his crew return to a Communist Earth in triumph.
Gail and Belyayev both followed up with pioneering works involving manned space stations. But Gail’s The Stone from the Moon (1926), offers only a brief visit to Astropol before descending into occultist rubbish about lost Atlantis and the world ice theory. Belyayev’s KETStar (1936), by contrast, further develops Tsiolkovsky’s theme of colonizing space – its very title (in Russian. Zvyezda KETS) honors his initials.
Leonid Artemiev, the hero, is a young biologist specializing in fruit who happens to make friends with Tonya Gerasimova, an assistant at an institute of mechanical physics. Together with Paley, an engineer, Tonya has worked out secret designs and made a series of calculations for a flight to the moon. Suddenly Paley disappears, Tonya asks Artemiev to fly with her to the Pamirs, where she hopes to find Paley. Only it turns out that there is already a secret (!) space program based there – and Artemiev is soon drafted into it.
KETStar, still under construction when he arrives, is both a space laboratory and a launching platform for missions to the moon and planets – the station itself and the interplanetary craft are built from meteoric material. Earth receives such practical benefits as the warming of the Arctic by giant mirrors, but space is seen as a new home for mankind. In the end, Artemiev, after an exciting trip to the Moon (in a ship guided by radio from the station) and his work at the space laboratory, decides to stay on and raise his family there.
Soviet film offered Vasili Zhuravlyov’s Cosmic Voyage (1936), with Tsiolkovsky himself as technical advisor. Pavel Ivanovich Sedikh, academician at the All-Union Institute for Interplanetary Communication, is his obvious avatar: a white-bearded physicist who wants to go to the Moon in the worst way. Professor Karin, head of the space program in 1946, doesn’t think an “old man” has any business in space, but Sedikh contrives to make the journey – accompanied only by a young woman, Marina, and a boy, Andryusha – kid brother of Victor Orlov, who had been slated to make trip himself.
For a film shot during Stalin’s reign, Cosmic Voyage seems remarkably apolitical aside from the “USSR” on the rocket ships. It’s all about the excitement of space travel. “Where are you going?” Andryusha’s friends ask him. “To the Moon!” Like Gail’s A Shot into Infinity, the movie features a launching ramp and scenes of stage separation and weightlessness. But one novelty is immersing the astronauts (not cosmonauts) in tanks of water to cushion them against acceleration during liftoff. On the Moon itself, they leap and frolic about in the low gravity. Sedikh is trapped under a rockslide at one point, but the others rescue him – and even a cat from an unmanned craft that had coincidentally landed at the same location. Naturally, they are all mobbed on their triumphal return.
Ironically, there had at that time been little realistic astronautical science fiction in the United States, where Robert Goddard shunned publicity and pulp sf was dominated by fanciful neo-Victorian concepts of space travel. One exception, little remembered today, was The Moon Maker (1916) by novelist Arthur Train (1875-1945) and physicist Robert Wood (1868-1955). Four years before Goddard published his calculations, they had envisioned an atomic-powered rocket in The Man Who Rocked the Earth (1915). There, it was used by a mad scientist trying to force an end to the world war.
In The Moon Maker, the Flying Ring is sent on a desperate mission to try to divert an asteroid on a collision course with earth. The short novel is notable for its realistic treatment of acceleration and weightlessness and for a prophetic scene in which the astronauts are jockeying to a landing on the moon, kicking up dust with their exhaust as the Apollo LEMs did decades later. Later, they use a death ray to divert the asteroid.
The Moon Maker wasn’t entirely ignored; Stanley G. Weinbaum clearly modeled his peculiar flying triangle in “The Red Peri” (1935) after the Flying Ring. But it was the German influence that was decisive, both in fiction and in technical works like Hermann Noordung’s “The Problems of Space Flying” (translated 1929). Willy Ley, a colleague of Oberth’s who fled Nazi Germany, spread the gospel in stories like “At the Perihelion” (1937), in which the escape of the hero and heroine from a Soviet colony on Mars depends on a precise understanding of celestial mechanics.
With Murray Leinster’s “The Power Planet” (1931), a melodrama about the struggle for control of a solar power station, serious speculation about potential uses of space had already entered American sf. Within a few years, realistic concepts of space exploration were taken almost for granted as a background for science fiction centered on broader themes.
Following World War II, a wider public began to awaken to the idea of space travel. Heinlein did his missionary work with Destination Moon (1950), a soberly realistic film for its time, and tried to communicate the spirit of space visionaries in “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (1950). Delos David Harriman doesn’t want to go down in history; he just wants to go. His struggle with indifferent business partners and an apathetic public to realize his dream is personal and tragic. Like Ley, who died a month before Apollo 11, he wins his battle – but not for himself. As a friend observes, “He looks as Moses must have looked, when he gazed out over the promised land.”
After that, it was time for the pseudo-documentaries; Arthur C. Clarke’s Prelude to Space (1951) and Islands in the Sky (1952). Lester del Rey’s Step to the Stars (1954), Leinster’s Space Tug (1953) – realistic but soon dated accounts of the first manned flights and the first space stations. Following Sputnik, “tomorrow” faded into “today” with novels like Martin Caidin’s Marooned (1964), and. finally, it was history with James Michener’s Space (1982).